Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the demure firebrand who in her 80s became a legal, cultural and feminist icon, died Friday. The Supreme Court announced her death, saying the cause was complications from metastatic cancer of the pancreas.
The court, in a statement, said Ginsburg died at her home in Washington, D.C., surrounded by family. She was 87.
“Our nation has lost a justice of historic stature,” Chief Justice John Roberts said. “We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague. Today we mourn but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her, a tireless and resolute champion of justice.”
Architect of the legal fight for women’s rights in the 1970s, Ginsburg subsequently served 27 years on the nation’s highest court, becoming its most prominent member. Her death will inevitably set in motion what promises to be a nasty and tumultuous political battle over who will succeed her, and it thrusts the Supreme Court vacancy into the spotlight of the presidential campaign.
Just days before her death, as her strength waned, Ginsburg dictated this statement to her granddaughter Clara Spera: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
She knew what was to come. Ginsburg’s death will have profound consequences for the court and the country. Inside the court, not only is the leader of the liberal wing gone, but with the court about to open a new term, the chief justice no longer holds the controlling vote in closely contested cases.
Though Roberts has a consistently conservative record in most cases, he has split from fellow conservatives in a few important ones this year, casting his vote with liberals, for instance, to protect at least temporarily the so-called DREAMers from deportation by the Trump administration, to uphold a major abortion precedent and to uphold bans on large church gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic. But with Ginsburg gone, there is no clear court majority for those outcomes.
Indeed, a week after the upcoming presidential election, the court is for the third time scheduled to hear a challenge brought by Republicans to the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. In 2012, the high court upheld the law in a 5-4 ruling, with Roberts casting the deciding vote and writing the opinion for the majority. But this time the outcome may well be different.
That’s because Ginsburg’s death gives Republicans the chance to tighten their grip on the court with another appointment by President Trump so conservatives would have 6-3 majority. And that would mean that even a defection on the right would leave conservatives with enough votes to prevail in the Obamacare case and many others.
At the center of the battle to achieve that will be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In 2016, he took a step unprecedented in modern times: He refused for nearly a year to allow any consideration of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee.
Back then, McConnell’s justification was the upcoming presidential election, which he said would allow voters a chance to weigh in on what kind of justice they wanted. But now, with the tables turned, McConnell has made clear he will not follow the same course. Instead he will try immediately to push through a Trump nominee so as to ensure a conservative justice to fill Ginsburg’s liberal shoes, even if Trump were to lose his reelection bid. Asked what he would do in circumstances such as these, McConnell said: “Oh, we’d fill it.”
So what happens in the coming weeks will be bare-knuckle politics, writ large, on the stage of a presidential election. It will be a fight Ginsburg had hoped to avoid, telling Justice John Paul Stevens shortly before his death that she hoped to serve as long as he did — until age 90.
“My dream is that I will stay on the court as long as he did,” she said in an interview in 2019.